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  • Writer's pictureAlexis Winter

Business & Pleasure

Chapter One

Alison Ryder sat at her desk in the small office she’d spent the better part of today in. She was staring intently at the screen of the laptop on the wooden desk in front of her. She twirled a strand of her long blonde hair around one finger. It was a bad habit she had been told, that made her look dumb, but, she did it subconsciously whenever she was thinking too hard. She had been working for the last couple of years for West Side Designs, ever since graduating top of her class from the University of Chicago.

She fought hard against the first impression that her looks gave off. Back at UC, she could have been mistaken for any one of the other girls wandering around campus, more worried about their manicure than their grades.

The truth of it was that Alison worked hard at everything she did. She cared about what she looked like because it gave a good first impression to everyone that she met and she truly believed that you perform better when you take care of yourself. She wasn’t head of the entire graduating class in high school and college for no reason, double majoring in Art and Interior Design and keeping a 4.0 with a full scholarship wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you could do without the brains to back it up.

The fact that she was always defending against the dumb blonde stereotype had given her a bit of a chip on her shoulder, and Alison was determined to not let first impressions be last impressions. Sometimes it meant she got a little too wrapped up in the perfectionist streak she had. Like right now, for example.

She’d walked into the office with a text sitting on her phone screen that told her that her boss wanted to see her as soon as she came in this morning. There was nothing that could give her a minor heart attack like being called into the boss’s office. It made her feel like she’d been called into the principal’s office back in grade school.

Madeline Dwyer, the owner of West Side Designs, was everything that Alison aimed to be. She was cool, calm, completely put together, and knew her business like no other person in the city of Chicago. She’d started this business on her own in her twenties and run it on her own ever since, rising to become one of the premier design firms in the country. The firm was her baby, and it was probably the reason that Madeline was still single well into her forties, in spite of the plethora of men who tried to work their way into her life. It was probably the most nerve wracking thing to get called into her office without knowing the reason.

Alison could feel her heart in her throat. She waited patiently outside of Ms. Dwyer’s office for her executive assistant to summon her into the largest office in the building, one with a corner view that looked out over the whole city…naturally. It made the room that Alison worked out of look like a closet with a tiny window that had a view of nothing but a neighboring building. Those were the perks when you ran an entire company instead of just being a newbie designer in a huge firm.

For all her ambition, Alison was still fairly new at this game. She was the youngest designer in the office, only slightly older than the interns that they brought in from time to time to get some experience in the world of interior design before they graduated and got thrown out into the real world to fend for themselves.

Alison had been one of those interns, herself, just a few years before, when she was the same age as her younger sister, Janelle.

“Ms. Dwyer will see you now.” The assistant didn’t even look up from her desk as she hung up the phone and called Alison into the office beyond.

Alison went in, swallowing to get the knot out of her throat as she walked into the room. Madeline was sitting in the chair behind the desk with a folder in hand, her glasses resting at the end of her nose as she studied over whatever paperwork was inside.

“Have a seat, Alison.” She put the folder down, grabbing her glasses off their perch and used them to point to the chair opposite her. Alison slid into place trying not to look as nervous as she felt.

“Morning, Ms. Dwyer.” Alison could hear her voice wanting to shake, but she fought back and refused to let it come out of her throat. There was no way she was going to let that show right now, no matter what she was in the office for.

“Morning.” She picked up the file and passed it over the desk to Alison who took it, glancing at the writing on the outside of the folder. Castille Hotels was emblazoned across it in what Alison recognized as Madeline’s careful handwriting. Alison looked up at her boss, a look of confusion marring her face.

“We have a new client, as you can see from the information in that folder. Castille Hotels is in the market for a designer to plan renovations in several of their locations. They contacted me yesterday evening as a personal favor, and I thought this might be a good chance for you to prove yourself.” Her voice was calm and even, betraying nothing of what was going on behind the gray-blue of her eyes. Madeline was hard to read on a good day, and this morning had caught Alison entirely unaware. Her eyes went a little wide despite her determination not to show Madeline how off kilter all of this had thrown her.

“I mean… This is a huge job, and if you think I’m up to the challenge, then I’m going to be up to the challenge.” She looked from the folder to her boss, steeling her features the best that she could. In reality she wanted to jump on top of the chair she was sitting in and scream with excitement. Most designers had to work for years before they were handed an opportunity like this.

“Fair enough. I wouldn’t have offered you the job if I didn’t think you were up to it.” Once again Madeline’s stoic features gave nothing away. “It’s going to require a lot of travel. Mr. Crawford has already said it will all be at his own expense. You’ll be using his private jet and staying at his hotels, all expenses included, of course.” The slight laugh behind Madeline’s words was there, barely concealed. It was the only little bit of emotion she displayed. She must have known how intimidating this was for Alison, but she also knew that her most perfectionistic employee was going to be the one to make sure every last detail was right for an enormous client.

“So when do I start?” Alison closed the folder and laid it in her lap. There was going to be a lot of research to do, and she planned to start as soon as she walked out of this room and back to her office. There was no way Alison was going to go into this job unprepared.

“Right now, but your first meeting with the client is tomorrow in their headquarters. You have an appointment at 10 AM. The address is in the folder.” She nodded towards the door, bending to pick up a pen from the desktop and jot something down on a piece of paper atop the desk. “Now go get started. As of right now, this is your only account. Make it count, Alison.”

“Yes ma’am. I’ll get right on it.” Alison stood up, leaving the room quickly and pulling her cell phone out of her pocket to immediately start searching for information on the company. She barely made it out of Madeline’s office and around the corner before she let out a squeak of excitement and ran toward the elevator bank.

She’d heard of Castille Hotels before. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know what they were. Luxury hotels that were found on nearly every continent on the face of the planet were hard to miss. When you lived in the city where the brand was founded, it was even more difficult to have never heard of them. She knew less about the owner of the company, but a quick search resulted in a slew of material that had her gnawing at the inside of her lip.

Vincent Crawford was only 36 years old, but he was already a billionaire. He hadn’t come from money. Everything he had was self-made, but that was just about the only positive bit of detail that Alison could find in her search. Beyond that, what she saw was a string of photos of Vincent with models and actresses draped across his arm, never the same one twice. Like a stereotypical billionaire, he hadn’t been able to commit to anyone, and the women he did date were clearly chosen for their looks and nothing more. The other photos were of him skiing down mountains in Europe, skydiving, jumping off a bridge in Australia with nothing but a bungee rope tied to his ankles.

Alison wasn’t sure what to think, but she was fairly certain that she wasn’t going to find much in common with a billionaire adrenaline junkie who had a taste for centerfolds. Her idea of a wild Saturday night was getting Chinese takeout to eat while she binged watched old movies or read a book instead of catching up on work. While she didn’t expect to spend any personal time with her client, she liked to have an idea of the person and their interest, it helped her feel more in control and prepared.

This was how she’d wound up in her office with a strand of hair wound around her finger. She was going to be spending a lot of time with this guy, and she needed to make a good impression. Her job might depend on this. Her future in the industry most definitely depended on her performance on this assignment. If it worked out, this was going on her resume for the rest of her career. If it didn’t, she was likely to be blacklisted from working for anyone in Chicago for the next decade.

Alison caught her bottom lip in between her teeth and bit down hard before letting out a long sigh. There was a lot on the line with this job. She just had to keep her head down and make sure the client was happy. They didn’t need to be best friends and she didn’t have to like him. She just had to decorate his hotels and make one hell of an impression. This could be the launching pad for her to go out on her own and open her own firm.

Picking up a notebook and pen, she jotted down a few quick notes from the image searches she had done of the list of locations she was starting with. Eventually, the entire chain was going to be redecorated, but for now they were starting on their oldest locations, needing to get them up to date. It had been 10 years since he’d purchased and started his first location here in Chicago. It was past due for an update, and Alison already had a few ideas. She needed to look through the location and get a feel for the way things worked and flowed in the hotel. The decor needed to be more than just beautiful. It needed to be comfortable and functional as well. The best designers knew that.

A lot of people could make a room look amazing. Looks most certainly weren’t everything. Alison understood that better than most. If a room wasn’t usable, if in the end it wasn’t a space someone could feel comfortable working or living in, then it was a failure. Interior design was a balance between art and function, everything that Alison loved, and in the end, it was going to be the space itself that told her what it needed to be everything that it could be.

She finished jotting her notes, glancing at the clock, it was lunch time, but there wasn’t much more she could do today. She’d done a thorough search of all the material that the internet could provide about both Vincent Crawford and his company. The rest was going to fall into place when she finally met him and the space she was going to be working with.

She grabbed her phone, tapping out a quick text to her sister.

Hey, J. Want to grab a bite to eat? I’ve got a lot to talk to you about.

Janelle was a lot more than just her baby sister. She was the person that Alison trusted most in the world. The two of them had been best friends since childhood. It was Janelle that kept Alison sane most days. The two of them were opposites, night and day. Janelle’s light hearted take on the world was the thing that balanced out Alison’s all too serious moods. If anyone could help her relax a little, it was going to be Janelle.

Her phone went off almost immediately. It was a Monday. Janelle should have been in class for the next half-hour, but of course there was always the chance that she was going to have skipped it and be free for the rest of the day or that she was simply replying from the back of the lecture hall.

Yeah, babe. Meet me at our restaurant in half an hour?

Alison laughed softly and shook her head before brushing her hair back behind her ears and working on tapping out a quick reply.

See you there.

Her bag was by the door. She snagged it quickly and headed out, telling the receptionist she was going to lunch and if anyone was looking for her to send her a text. In all likelihood, no one was going to be looking for her, but Alison felt guilty for skipping out of work for a long lunch break, no matter how much she might need it. She was going to be out of the office a lot in the next few weeks though. There was really no telling when she’d be back in, and all her work could be done from home.

She kept reminding herself that this client was her only job. She made her way to the closest train station to catch the L and head off to the Mexican restaurant that she and Janelle loved. This was going to be a long job and a once in a lifetime opportunity. Alison could only hope she had it in her to do this thing justice.

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